IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Monday, November 30, 2708, continued
(I knew Keller could fly. I knew it! Magentine technology, it’s called. I had it on good report. I’m not a yokel. But my research showed that flying expends calories lavishly, and in my brief glimpse of Keller she looked too depleted, barely able to hover above the ground, to survive a plunge off a cliff.
I watched them plummet. I saw the boy stuff something in her mouth, and then she took off. Candy? Greenfire? Whichever it was, I need to find out. Different aids bring different vulnerabilities.)
The world grinds on as the greenfire fades, the burning of my cuts taking its place, and every step feels like I climb a mountain, but the night only shows a level ground before me, and the murky trunks of trees to push against. What am I even doing here? I came to this land as a diplomatic aide—Archives never profiled me to wage a war. Oh God how long till I can lay me down and let my burdens slip away?
(“I’m not of the mountains,” I can hear Cybil’s thoughts though her lips remain silent, almost as clearly as if she thought it in actual words. “I’m not cut out for this.” But the chubby little bureaucrat navigates the steep slope with the rest of us, feeling for each frosty rock in the dark. I hope she can pick up the thoughts that I send back her way, of my respect for her.
It worries me that increasingly such information just breaks through my shields and training like they were mistreated antique silk. I used to strain at telepathy—so now I’m doing it by accident?
I hear the keening of some night-haunting birds of prey, while we hold onto rocks, branches, roots, whatever will make the slippery journey downslope easier. Over there: I see their gyre on the wind, hunting whatever prey stands out against the snow. They seem so light, so sure of themselves, with nothing underneath.
“I wish I had wings,” Cybil grumbles audibly as we make the last, steep descent down to Goeddalville Valley. I make no reply, not even telepathically, but think achingly of Deirdre, who has the gift of flight. She should have taken Vanikke, not me. But how were we to know that levitation would ever come handy on a diplomatic mission?
She would have done better than I did. She would not have lost any lives on her watch, surely. And Deirdre would never have mindblasted anybody. Oh Gates—how can I ever look into those innocent eyes again?
Rubbish, Zanne. You’re just tired. Tired and still reeling from the recoil. You take second place to no one.
Yes, keep on telling yourself that, o worshiper of Truth!)
The leaf wears off faster than I expect. I find myself leaning on Tanjin by the time we stumble into camp, ground-mist swirling all around us, and all the forest looks haunted in the dark.
“Where are we?” I ask, and my voice sounds fretful even to me. “I...I don’t know this place.” Guerillas should always know the land better than their opponents.
“Chabi’s Wood,” someone offers in the dark, “In Bosco Valley.” Just having a name calms me some. Then I gasp as Tanjin cleans my wounds with a sharp disinfectant.
“It’s okay,” Tanjin murmurs. “You’re okay wherever I am. And we have locals in the band.”
(Somewhere I have a wife, Chabelle D’Arco. I know precisely where, actually. A little village that nobody here has ever heard of, but it could just as well be on the far side of Earth. I can’t go back to a decent woman like that; I can only send her money with which to raise the children that she bore me.
This woman, on the other hand, of much greater status than Chabelle, in fact outranking me and certainly of higher family, this woman I do not respect. Why not, then, indulge in an affair? What’s one more sin? She has blood on her hands the same as me.
And at times I can admire her, which differs a little bit from respect, but will suffice. Masterful, the way she directed the chase of that rogue tank. She achieved her goal, too; it’s not her fault that a witch got away. Nobody could have seen that coming, not based merely on rumors from hysterical men. I have clashed with Keller myself, and never saw her fly.
A pity to waste Layne’s talents on organizing the clean-up of debris. She does so smartly, her face a stone, barking orders firmly and yet almost indifferently, absent-mindedly fluffing her hair now and then. She knows that the generals with more seniority blame her for losing Keller. I didn’t see them come up with something better.
I feel tempted to help, to go over there and load rubble into wheelbarrows, or saw half-shattered beams. I began with humble work like that. I wonder if my muscles can remember how?
No, it would only leave me aching, now, and accomplish nothing but reducing my status among the men. I must wait by the side, patiently. Patience has always been my friend.
They have no work for me right now. No one to interrogate. No trail to study. I might have assisted in tracking where these rebels came from, at least, but nobody has asked it of me, and I deign not to volunteer. The insult has not been lost on me. They do not like me to do my work in plain sight, even in a simple matter of following tracks through a wood. They want what I give them, without respecting me.
Yes, Layne and I have much in common.
I sigh. The wind has gone chilly with the nightfall. I might as well go into the warmth, while I have it. Maybe even turn in early.
Fantasize how I might, I know that I will not approach General Layne Aliso with lustful intent. Some stubborn spine of morality remains unbroken in me, or at least grown back. Rosebud, in the end, gave me nothing but regret. I can hardly remember my wife’s face anymore, yet I will not betray her again.)
Tanjin takes me straight to the sleep area as soon as he finishes bandaging me, leans me against a tree and unfurls my bedroll for me, while I watch through the lashes of eyelids that won’t lift all the way. Whenever anybody tries to report to me, he growls, “Can’t you see she’s exhausted?”
(“Sleep,” I tell my ragtag band of bureaucrats and other refugees from the madness of Vanikke. I heap damp armfuls of fragrant autumn leaves onto the tarps to increase the warmth beneath against the freshly falling snow. “We’re close now, to Montoya Manor, less than a week away.” Now I crawl in with them, and I tuck them in, one by one, smoothing Magda’s graying hair, careful around Kimba.
“Why so early?” Courtney complains. “I’m not sleepy.” Yet she hardly gets the words out before yawning; that descent took a toll on all of us, and she had a particularly tough time with her injured arm.
“So we can get up at three in the morning, chickling.” The other teenagers join her in groaning. “Over the next few days I plan to phase us into sleeping by day and traveling by night. We can approach the manor more safely that way.”
Ozwald shrugs where he lies. “Oh, well that’s okay. I’m a night-hawk by nature.”
“It’s better to move in the chill of night anyway.” I say, then wriggle into my own sleeping-bag.
Minerva sighs. “It’s nice, having people snuggled up close again. Did I ever mention that?”
“No, dear. Did you lose somebody?”
“Oh, he’s still alive. Somewhere. We’re still married in the eyes of God, whatever he might say. But he’s Swiss and didn’t want to admit to marrying an Italian. When he heard the mob coming down the street, pulling people out of homes, he shoved me out the door, himself, screaming at me, ‘You’re fired!” and going on about how he should never have trusted a thieving Italian cook in his kitchen.” She turns over and settles her cheek into the “pillow”. Sleepily she says, “He married me in Church. He’s going to have to answer to God about me.”)
All those men on fire. Not just a tankful, but hundreds and hundreds of men, dying horribly before our eyes. And I felt nothing. I’m going to have to answer to God for that.
But maybe they deserved it. Maybe God’s roasting them, Himself, right now. Maybe I’m just too tired right now to tell right from wrong.
“How’d it go?” asks Hekut as he tends Tanjin’s wounds in turn. “Kill any of those rapin’ devils for the cause?”
I can’t see his face, but I can feel Tanjin go pale as if the blood rushed out of my own face, before he says, “Yeah. Quite a few, actually. We hit their cafeteria just in time for supper, and then we blew up their magazine.”
“Aw jee—you should have looted it! We can always use more guns and ammo.”
Sarcastically Tanjin says, “If you come along next time, lil’ Hoofmite, we’ll let you try.”
(Loot. Think about the future, Lufti. If I set enough aside, Kiril and I can slip out of the war, clean off the radar, whatever radar is; it probably means where the stars can’t see. We’ll get out of Hell and go to where the dead don’t dance and we’ll live together happily ever after in a little farm of our own, high up in the mountains where nobody will bother us, soldiers or rebels or devils or gods or ghosts or anybody, and we’ll have children, and chickens, and maybe a couple goats, but we won’t need horses because we’ll all be able to walk. And I shall plant hollyhocks because they serve no earthly purpose except to look pretty, we’ll be so well-off we can grow things besides food.
I mean, look at all this treasure! Gold and silver and ruby-red and sapphire-blue and that clear stuff must be diamond. Be smart, Lufti, and we’ll be set for life!)
Why do I know what Hekut saw happen to his sister? Why do I feel the memory of his seeing so viscerally that I suddenly feel the world tip under me?
“Whoa, Deirdre—here. Lie down. That’s it, head below your feet. Now let me go get you some food, okay?”
(“Give your brother some more sausage to balance off the coconut rolls, Kiril. And here’s some cheese.” Sarge lets Lufti share our indoor quarters for the night. He has even rolled out his own sleeping-bag on the floor and let us have the bed.
I look Sarge in the eye. “You’re getting rid of him tomorrow, aren’t you?”
He freezes, staring at me the longest time before he says, “First thing after breakfast.” Well, whaddya know—a straight answer! He looks away. “But it’ll be a very nice breakfast, even if we have to cook outdoors the old-fashioned way. Cheese omelets—your favorite, Kiril.” And then I know for sure.
“Am I going at the same time, then?”
“Kiril, what makes you think...okay. Not quite the same time. We can travel with you for a week, maybe two, before Commissioner D’Arco can dispatch a new camp cook for us.”
“Ah. I see. The Purple Mantles want to keep an eye on you.”
“How did you know...”
“Everybody can see what he wears, Sarge. A normal cook would come from the regular military.”
“They do not want to keep an eye on me, personally—it’s not like that, little girl. Here, try this rubyberry tart. Anyway, you shouldn’t trouble your little head about...”
“Is it because you lost so many men and guns to rebels?”
“Everybody has—I’m not unique. The government thinks they should keep an extra pair of eyes and ears in every troop these days, that’s all. It’s not me in particular.” Good to know. I’ll make sure that Lufti tells Deirdre that when he gets back.
Lufti asks, “Are the new recruits dead, too?”
“No, silly,” I tell him. “Why, what a thing to say!” They would be, of course, if the army didn’t eat in shifts.
“They’re just so scary.” His eyes narrow. “The stars didn’t send them, did they?”
“Don’t you worry about the stars, dearheart. Here, you can have a tart, too.”
Sarge says, “Two or three, if he wants.” Ah, Sarge! You think you can pay off your debts so cheaply! But I don’t think Lufti’s ever going to have that cute, round face again, and all the food you stuff into him in this one night won’t take the wolf out of his eyes.
We hear boots halt outside the tent. “Captain Anras, sir?”
“Yes,” Sarge says and goes out. I never heard his real name before—all this time, come to think of it, he’s been more under cover than me. He doesn’t even use his real rank. I signal Lufti to make no sound as I strain to listen to the whispered conversation just outside the door.
“Leave before the others, sir,” the voice says. “General Aliso will reconnect with you at the location described. She wants these papers far from any obvious targets.” I hear them rustle—sounds like a lot.
“Meaning my own troop’s ragtag enough by now that rebels won’t bother it anymore? Don’t count on it.”
“We don’t count on anything, sir, but even the enemy has to go by probabilities.”
Thanks be to all good ghosts! I look at Lufti, who smiles slyly at me and winks as he gathers up, stealthily, all the golden, silvery, red, blue, and clear candy wrappers and stuffs them in his pockets. Then Sarge comes in and puts a fat sheaf of paper into his footlocker like it was nothing. “Anybody up for hot chocolate?” he asks.)
Oh lord but I feel hungry! With trembling hands I wolf down all the bread, cheese, and greens that Tanjin hands me, then pick the crumbs off my clothes while he struggles to unfasten the body-flit from me. It almost feels good, when he releases me. Yet something in my heart feels sure that I can never feel good again. I betrayed Kiril. I nearly got her killed. If not for Tanjin…!
(Who needs chocolate when I have treasure? Gold and silver, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds! I shall bury them deep, a little here, a little there, and on each cache I shall leave a lucky stone so the stars won’t find them. And Kiril and I shall live happily ever after, and nobody shall know where we went, not even the mountain maidens, not even the hawk upon the wing!)
Tanjin wipes off my hands and face with a damp cloth, and I let him, blinking stupidly at the empty wrappers before he puts them away. At last he pulls off my boots, loosens my clothing here and there, and spreads my blankets over me. The ground feels hard under the thin padding, but I don’t care, I don’t care about anything anymore except this crazy craving for chocolate that will not let me be!
Chocolate. I remember it well. I…remember…forget…I just want to…so tired!...so…
“It’s just real, Deirdre.”